On Nov. 4, 1986, smack in the middle of midterm elections in the United States, NBC News began reporting the story that would ultimately result in the Iran/Contra hearings. The day before, a Lebanese weekly magazine reported that the United States had been secretly selling arms to Iran in hopes of having seven American hostages released. The U.S., including President Ronald Reagan's administration, would not confirm the reports. When U.S. intelligence sources finally did so on Nov. 6, it was a shock to the nation because it went against the administration's policy to never negotiate with terrorists, and it violated a U.S. arms embargo in against Iran.The controversy compounded on Nov. 25 when U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese announced that the proceeds of the arms sales were being diverted to fund Nicaraguan rebels fighting a guerilla war against the seated government.That same day, President Reagan accepted the resignation of Vice Admiral John Poindexter, his national security advisor, and fired Lt. Col. Oliver North. Both men played key roles in the operation, and later, North in particular, became a major focus of the investigation.
Here's NBC News Senior Investigative Producer Robert Windrem shares some of his recollections of the story as it broke:
Even twenty years later, it's hard to forget how stunned we were the day Iran-Contra broke. It was so unlikely, so bizarre that it took a day or two to sink in. And then the revelations began to pile up: the cake in the shape of the key, the TOW missile parts, the Israeli connection and finally, the Contra connections -- Ollie North's "neat idea." Bizarre wasn't the word for it. Breathtaking might have been.
Moreover, the country had just gone through a hard-fought midterm election and Democrats were angry that the public had gone to the polls without knowing of an explosive issue that no doubt would have had an effect on the campaign. Note that Tom Brokaw was still sitting on the Election Night set in the attached video clip!
Many thought that this would be Reagan's Watergate, but it never reached that level of outrage or rancor for reasons that had more to do with the President's political skills than the substance. Resignations, firings, indictments, trials, mea culpas all followed just as they did in Watergate, but by the time he left office a little more than two years later, the affable President was again riding high.
The scandal also resonates now in ways that couldn't be imagined back then. Today, the Lebanese magazine that broke the story would be online. Experts and journalists with responsibility for the region —- not to mention bloggers -- would have found it almost immediately and pushed it out a lot quicker. And what few recall is that the scandal unfolded in large measure because of the White House's nascent e-mail system, a prototype electronic mail system from IBM called the Professional Office System (PROFs). As North and countless others have learned since, e-mail leaves a long digital tail that lives on even after being deleted.
The National Security Archive sued the government in 1989 when it learned the White House was going to destroy the entire e-mail record. It won, got the e-mails under the Freedom of Information Act and published as both a book and diskette. The material can now be found at: http://fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/reagan/nsa_book.htm